Staying safe on the road comes down to a few basic principles. Read on to learn more about how to drive defensively.

What is Defensive Driving?

Driver adjusting rearview mirror
Driver adjusting rearview mirror

Defensive driving isn’t driving overly slow or hyper-cautiously or avoiding traffic at all costs. While it can include less extreme versions of any of those, driving defensively is primarily about awareness. Awareness of your surroundings, of other vehicles on the road, and most especially of the fact that you’re piloting a ton and a half of metal at speed.

Many of us drive daily and have done so for years or decades. The task of driving can become rote, and the stakes involved (and the physics) can recede to the back of our minds. Defensive driving is foregrounding those stakes and those physics, keeping them front and center in our minds every time we get behind the wheel.

As we’ll see below, defensive driving is proactive driving. It means being mentally prepared and accounting, as best as possible, for both what you can and can’t control out on the road. Here’s our list of defensive driving habits worth cultivating.

Know Your Route and the Conditions

Poor driving conditions
Poor driving conditions

Planning your route can help reduce the number of unforeseen variables on your drive. Knowing the turns, exits, and typical traffic flows in the area mean you won’t be caught trying to correct for a missed turn. Similarly, it’s important to know what the weather conditions are like where you’re planning to travel. Rain, snow, ice, and fog can all produce hazardous road conditions. Typically, you’ll want to drive more slowly and leave greater distances for stopping.

Know Your Vehicle

Part of driving safely is knowing your vehicle is in good working order. This includes making sure your tires are properly inflated, your wipers are in good condition, your brakes are performing correctly, and your lights all work. It’s also important to know what your vehicle is and isn’t capable of. Heavier vehicles can take longer to stop. Taller vehicles can be lean in cornering. Braking distances can vary considerably. Your Tahoe isn’t a Porsche, and it isn’t safe to try driving it like it is.

Avoiding Distractions

Distracted driver
Distracted driver

Central to defensive driving is focus. This means avoiding distractions that include eating, talking on the phone, having an intense conversation, and, of course, texting. The same goes for driving while sleepy or inebriated. Though we all love a good tune on the radio while driving, it’s a good idea to keep it to a reasonable volume, especially in urban areas, lest you fail to hear the sirens of emergency vehicles.

Situational Awareness

The core of defensive driving is situational awareness. Be aware of your surroundings, front, behind, to the sides, and in your blind spots. Scan your mirrors a least a few times every minute (every ten to twenty seconds). Know where other vehicles are and how they are moving. Don’t assume others know what they are doing or what your intentions are (always signal when appropriate). This is particularly important when approaching and navigating intersections. Watch for cross traffic, correct for potential errors from other drivers (like drivers running lights or merging incorrectly), and never run a red light yourself.

Note Potential Hazards

Construction zone
Construction zone

Another facet of situational awareness is noting potential hazards on the road. This can include potholes, construction, road debris, pedestrian and cycling traffic, broken down cars, cars that are abruptly or frequently changing lanes, and wildlife. Be cautious around freeway exits. Drivers who fear missing their exit can change lanes without signaling or make other unsafe maneuvers. Be aware of visual obstructions, for yourself and other drivers. Hedges, buildings, and sharp turns can all limit what you can see coming down the road, compensate accordingly. More generally, be mindful of uncontrolled intersections and proceed with caution.

Maintaining a Safe Distance

We’ve all been taught to keep a few car lengths between us and the next car in front of us. And yet, many drivers fail to do this. A good rule of thumb is to allow for between three and five seconds of stopping time between cars. Remember, you need to account for perception time, reaction time, and braking distance. In practical terms, this means over ten car lengths for you to come to a dead stop from 40 mph (close to 180 ft of travel). Whatever distance you’re used to keeping, it’s probably not sufficient. And if people merge in front of you? So what? For more information, here’s our explanation of the stopping distance formula.

Avoiding Bad Habits / Laziness

Heavy traffic
Heavy traffic

Thought it’s easier said than done, it’s important to replace bad habits with good ones. This includes avoiding speeding, poor lane discipline, tailgating, and not signaling. For more, here’s our list of bad driving habits to avoid.

Yield When Appropriate

Yielding to other traffic is probably the most recognizable form of defensive driving. Avoiding other unsafe drivers is always a good idea. Make it your job to (safely) move away from tailgaters, speeders, swervers, and distracted drivers you’re sharing the road with. Even though there are plenty of bad rivers out there, don’t fall victim to road rage yourself. The heightened danger of driving can prompt extreme reactions from people. For better ways of coping with the stresses of driving, here’s our guide to road rage relief.

Obey the Law and Follow Best Practices

Putting on seatbelts
Putting on seatbelts

It should be obvious, but every driver should be abiding by local traffic laws. A few additional best practices to keep in mind include signaling (mid-block or at least 3 seconds prior to a lane change), passing with care only in designated areas, and always wear your seatbelt.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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